A Starfish, a Puma, an Iguana and a Creator God Walk Into a Museum: Art from Xochicalco

Wiggling starfish. Photo mine.

Wiggling starfish. Photo mine.

Back in the summer of 2011, when I had not seen the (archaeological) light and was still convinced that I would one day follow into Jane Goodall’s footsteps and become a primatologist, I was sent by my Director of Studies to Mexico to collect some howler monkey poo for DNA analyses. While there, I made a friend, and organised to stay at her place in Cuernavaca for a few days before going back home. And, at Cuernavaca’s Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum (also known as the Palacio Cortes), I saw these beautiful sculptures from the Pre-Columbian site of Xochicalco, which is not far from Cuernavaca itself.

At the time, I was amazed at how alive these sculptures looked, how wonderfully they imitated the soft curves that predominate in nature. There was a starfish, wiggling its arms. There was an iguana, its tail curling upwards, its head turned towards visitors as if we’d disturbed it while it was catching some sun on a rocky outcrop. There was a puma, its body perhaps a bit rigid, but its pricked-up ears and snarling lips fantastically life-like. And, finally, there was the Creator–an anthropomorphic deity, kneeling on one knee, equipped with a hooked nose with flaring wide nostrils, wide-open eyes, protruding fangs, and a double-pronged penis, as well as long flowing dreadlocks and ornamental cacao vines twisting all across his chest and back. The name “Creator” presumably derives from the fact that he seems to have generative powers: besides the double-penis, the vines with which he’s covered look like they’re actually growing out of him.

Lounging iguana. Photo mine.

Lounging iguana. Photo mine. Apologies for the pseudo-arty shading–you can find a better picture here.

Now that I know a bit more about ancient Mesoamerica, I thought I’d revisit these sculptures and see if I can get more out of them beyond mere aesthetic appreciation. So I looked up Xochicalco, and tried to fit these sculptures with the information I found about the site. Judging from the fact that there’s very little about it on Google Scholar, Xochicalco does not seem to be the best published site ever, but there’s plenty of information on the internet, and most of it seems reliable.

Xochicalco’s heyday coincides with the Epiclassic period (650-900 AD), just before and just after the collapse of Mesoamerica’s then-biggest power, Teotihuacan (this is several centuries before the Aztecs rose to power). In other words, Xochicalco was around at a time of massive change and political instability, and, as befitting such a time, the city was heavily fortified, and located atop a cluster of easily defenisble hills. The rest seems to be pretty standard Mesoamerican city-stuff: Xochicalco has its ballcourts, its pyramids, its plazas and markets, its royal palace, its nice stairways.

Snarling puma. Photo mine. Apologies for the wonky angle.

Snarling puma. Photo mine. Apologies for the wonky angle.

The sculptures I saw (excluding the starfish) were found in one of the structures of the Acropolis, the highest bit of the city, where plazas, temples and areas designed for elite activities stood. They probably once adorned the roof of that building: we can tell from traces of weathering on the stucco that covers them, as well as the fact that they were found in the debris resuting from a collapsed roof. Also, there were several copies of each–but they were so broken up that, by the time I saw them, archaeologists had only been able to reconstruct one copy of each. Traces of pigment suggest that the sculptures were once coloured, too: there’s a bit of red on the Creator’s vines, ears and hair, for example.

Though the carvings on the Feathered Serpent Pyramid are beautiful, all other examples of free-standing sculptures from Xochicalco I’ve found are pretty unspectacular–even slightly grubby. How, then, do we explain these amazing works? I like the idea that they were made by a single artist, perhaps some Xochicalcan Michelangelo. Or maybe it was migrant artists from a region in which this style is more common? If it was one artist, would he or she have been renowned for his or her Xochicalco sculptures? I know Maya artists often signed their work, but I am not aware of artists having particularly high status among the Aztecs, which, culturally, were probably a bit closer to the Xochicalcans.

Creator, front. Photo mine.

Creator, front. Photo mine.

And also, what about this Creator? I’m not aware of any similar figures in other Mesoamerican pantheons–which are usually dominated by Rain Gods (Tlaloc) and Feathered Serpent Gods (Quetzalcoatl). Then again, the Aztecs were particular worshippers of a deity that plays a pretty minor role in other parts of Mesoamerica, the warlike Huitzilopochtli, so perhaps this Creator is the Xochicaltec equivalent–a deity which is very minor elsewhere but is honoured with beautiful sculptures here. But it appears that both Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl were prominent in Xochicalcan religion too: for example, intricate stone carvings on the side of a squat but imposing pyramid depict undulating feathered serpents, while the largest structure on the site is dedicated to the worship of Tlaloc, and two more bits of art they displayed at the exhibition were Tlaloc-heads. What we need, then, is more information on the building on whose roof the scuptures would have once stood–information which I was not able to find.

Creator from the back. Check out those flowing locks. Photo mine.

Creator from the back. Check out those flowing locks. Photo mine.

If any readers know a bit more about this than I do, or have any ideas about how to interpret these sculptures, I would be happy to discuss things in the comments section below. I’d be particularly interested to know whether anyone has since similar artworks elsewhere, or knows of a deity that is similar to the Creator, or knows anything about the building where the sculptures were found.

I don’t know where these sculptures are currently housed–I can’t tell whether they’re still at the Cuauhnahuac Museum, or whether that was just a temporary exhibition. Perhaps they’re at Xochicalco’s own on-site museum. If any readers do happen to find out/know where they are, it would be great if they could tell me, so that I can put that information here.

Also, if you are interested in finding out more about the site of Xochicalco, you should head over to its page on the UNESCO website–or, even better, take a photo tour. Also, there’s an article on the exhibition where I took these photos here.

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